LITTLE ITALY & THE ORANGES OF FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA

by Andy Griffin

www.mariquita.com

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I want to slice the Godfather's oranges open and see if they bleed. They should. Mr. Coppola filmed his triptych of the Corleone crime family and employed food as a metaphor so deftly that a hungry viewer might be excused for believing that the Mafia is just an especially dysfunctional Slow Food convivium. Listen... Can you hear a trumpet softly quoting a mournful melody? The movie is starting. Pour yourself a glass of red wine and join me on the couch to count oranges.

Look. There's fat Clemenza, the capo regime, swigging sangria right out of a glass pitcher. Two quarter slices of orange are bobbing in the sloshing wine like theatrical smiles and frowns from a pair of tragicomic masks. When he comes up for air Clemenza will bark "do your job" at Pauli. And what kind of work would that be? Just business, I guess, nothing personal. In Part III we will see this cliche in action. There, Michael Corleone is an older Don trying to make the family business legitimate. He finds himself seated at a breakfast table with the silver haired, ever smooth, George Hamilton and plenty of orange juice. As he signs important papers Michael remarks that his late father Don Vito liked to do everything himself and hated the anonymity of charitable foundations. "We're just like any corporation," responds George suavely as his glass is filled with more orange juice. "Control a lot of money with very little. Minimize taxes. No government control..." It's an ironic line coming from a mafia consigliere trying to deny Nevada gambling roots. "Having juice" is Vegas slang for being connected to power.

There were plenty of oranges in the early years of the Godfather saga too. In Part II Fanucci, a midlevel gangster with the Black Hand, puts the squeeze on small, businesses. Strutting down the streets of New York's Little Italy, Fanucci, pleased with himself and his petty extortions takes an orange from a street vendor without paying. A few minutes later in the film young Vito Corleone shoots the old parasite dead. Taking his own self-assured stroll down the street after the murder a newly minted Don Vito Corleone selects an orange from a fruit peddler and offers to pay. "No," pleads the vendor. "Take it as a gift."

We spectators to the Godfather drama can take the orange as a cue. Whenever an orange is present on screen be assured you're in for a taste of Mafia business. Don Vito buys oranges at a fruit stand and the next thing you know he's shot down by rivals, his sack of fruit tumbling to the ground. Michael Corleone sucks at an orange and plans a murder. "If history has taught us anything it is that you can kill anyone," he says, the orange still tingling his tongue. Johnny Ola brings Michael an "orange from Miami" when he negotiates with the Corleone family as an emissary from Jewish mobster Hyman Roth. But the trouble with oranges is that they're difficult to divide when everyone wants to have the biggest half. When Don Vito resolves a difficult negotiation saying "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," an implied death threat is right up front...and an orange is in the background.

What kind of oranges are these that keep popping up throughout the movie? Symbolic oranges, mostly. Ever since their introduction from the east the orange, or golden apple, has always had a luxurious connection. In the era when much of the Godfather movie is supposed to have taken place, from the 20s through the 50s, the idyllic scenes pictured on the labels of orange crates almost defined The Good Life. The movie Dons always gather for their summits at long tables where large bowls full of the fruits of other peoples labor serve as centerpieces to keep the crooks focused on their greed. When the Dons reach for the oranges we're reminded that the orange, like many other segmented fruits with lots of seeds, has always had a reputation as a fertility totem. It's only natural that when the mafia women gather at a wedding and gossip about the size of Sonny's penis an orange is on display.

But what cultivar of oranges are these? They couldn't be Seville oranges, citrus aurantia, that come from Spain and are mostly destined for English marmalade pots. Seville oranges are sour. Mafia life is bitter with the violent deaths of the young or innocent but it is also sweet with revenge. The oranges of Francis Ford Coppola must be citrus sinensis types. But not the acidless Brazilian sugar orange. Mafia life isn't insipid like the sugar orange but always has the acid tang of fear in the belly for balanced flavor. Navel oranges are so characteristic of California, Australia, South Africa and Spain that they don't seem Italian enough for a mafioso. No, oranges like the one that Capo regime Tessio tosses at the wedding should be Blood oranges.

Blood oranges are true Sicilians. With dramatic purplish burgundy flesh, a complex bouquet of sweet and tart and luxurious raspberry overtones blood oranges are appropriate for a movie like the Godfather as no other varieties could be. For the sequences of the movie set back in rural Sicily at the turn of the century, Sanguingno, the earliest blood orange type, would be the correct fruit for the movie set. As sanguingno was seedy and didn't possess an even, consistent, red blush it was improved by Sicilian farmers. Later episodes of the Godfather staged to have taken place in the 50's or 60's need more recent varieties like Sanguinello, Moro, or Tarocco. For absolute cinema verité the orange juice on the table when young Michael meets his Sicilian bride's family would be red, squeezed from Moro oranges after the Sicilian custom. Tarocco blood oranges are considered an exquisite dessert fruit, too fancy for juice.

Godfather Vito dies a natural death face down in his garden with his grandson. The once deadly Grandpa had a prank in mind. He'd popped an orange rind in his mouth and was about to turn and show the child a big spooky orange grimace when death came. The old mobster had lived his whole life with the taste of orange in his mouth. Sometimes the juice was sweet/tart with raspberry overtones and sometimes it tasted of blood.

Copyright 2003 Andy Griffin

 

 

This is fennel grown on our farm, and it goes well with oranges, blood or otherwise.

Click here for fennel recipes, including 2 that include oranges.